There has been considerable debate about the issue of free school meals recently, and the related topics of food vouchers, food provision to children when they are not in school, spending on welfare, and food poverty in general.
I applaud the work Marcus Rashford has done to highlight the issue of food poverty. His personal experience is familiar to too many across the country including in my own constituency and Mr Rashford is using his celebrity and voice to raise awareness about important issues.
Let me start by assuring my constituents that all politicians of all parties recognise that government should help the most vulnerable in society with necessities like food and housing. This should go without saying. While there may not be disagreement about the end goals, however, there is considerable debate about the means to that end. So it is reasonable that we should have a calm and rational debate about what mechanism best delivers help, including food to children in school and out of school.
Let me also be clear, because there appears to be some confusion on this: there is no proposal to take free school meals away. The debate has been over additional provision of extra support in the form of ‘free meals’ outside of school term time. Even during the depths of the financial crisis under the last Labour Government free school meals were not extended outside of term time. Free school meals are intended to support children while they are learning. They are not - and were never intended to be - a general welfare measure. But recognising the truly extraordinary circumstances of Coronavirus and lockdown the government decided to provide additional support this year.
When schools were closed to most students during lockdown, the normal mechanism of free school meals couldn’t work. The government allocated £63 million to local authorities to help them support households who are struggling to afford food and other essentials as a result of the financial difficulties they are experiencing due to the pandemic. Worcestershire has received £595,000 of this funding and Councils have helped provide food and other support directly and indirectly to families in need of help during the Coronavirus crisis.
Some of the additional support for vulnerable families came in the form of food vouchers (the national voucher scheme to make sure children who would ordinarily benefit from free school meals had access to nutritious meals while they were not attending school; and the £120 million Covid Summer Food Fund available to all children during the Summer who usually qualified for free school meals during term time). But not everyone likes vouchers - there is sometimes a stigma attached to vouchers and they were not accepted in all shops. Many people in need would prefer direct financial support over vouchers. Pre school children are also not eligible for free school meals. They are not therefore the only route to resolving child food poverty.
Recognising the particularly acute pressures on the most vulnerable, the Government has taken extraordinary measures to ensure that we support families on low incomes throughout the year - including a £9.3 billion boost to our welfare system. We boosted the Universal Credit standard allowance and Working Tax Credit by over £1,000 per year for 12 months. Our £500 million council tax hardship fund has also enabled local authorities to reduce the council tax bills of economically vulnerable people in their area. This is billions of pound of additional support, but I recognise from correspondence I have received that not everyone is aware of these measures - alongside the £200 billion of support for people’s jobs and incomes.
Regarding some of the recent political discussion in parliament, while there has been considerable coverage of what Parliament did not agree in a recent Opposition Day debate*, there has been less attention to what we did agree and what I supported. MPs backed the existing emergency package of support measures for families which is worth billions on top of free school meals. Parliament endorsed ongoing activities to help the most vulnerable children in society. You may be interested to read the speech made by the Secretary of State in the debate which will give you some idea of the scale of support provided so far.
Throughout the pandemic, we have stood behind families that need our support and we will continue to look at different ways to ensure they aren’t left disadvantaged by the difficult times we are now in.
Covid Winter Grant Scheme
The recently announced new winter package sets out to provide further support for children and families.
The Covid Winter Grant Scheme dedicates £170m to local authorities across the country, ensuring that vulnerable households do not go hungry or without essential items. The Scheme will be run by the councils, and funding will be ring-fenced with at least 80% earmarked to support with food and bills. I’m pleased that Worcestershire County Council will be receiving over £1.6 million to help the most vulnerable in our area. To put this amount into context, funding free school meals for two weeks across the country would cost around £20m. We are going beyond this to help families on lower incomes in this difficult time.
This scheme will allow councils to directly help the hardest-hit families and individuals, and councils are best placed to ensure appropriate holiday support will reach those that need it. In term-time, this responsibility will remain with the schools, who will continue providing meals for disadvantaged children as before.
As well as the introduction of the Covid Winter Grant Scheme, we’ve announced an increase from £3.10 to £4.25 a week for the Healthy Start scheme which supports pregnant women or those with children under the age of 4 to buy fresh fruit and vegetables. This scheme is available to those in receipt of benefits to make sure that their children can get the nutrients they need when it matters most.
We’ve also expanded the Holiday Activities and Food programme across England next year, investing up to £220m in providing healthy food and enriching activities to disadvantaged children and covering Easter, Summer and Christmas in 2021. This programme has been shown to be an effective way to close the gap of learning loss between the richest and poorest children and is an important mechanism to help parents through the long summer holidays.
We will also continue to work closely with food distribution charities, such as FareShare, helping ensure no one is left in a position where they or their children go hungry.
My constituents should be in no doubt that there is support for them if they need it, and that we will take whatever steps necessary to help them weather the storm and lead us back to a bright future. Considerable help and support is available at local level. I am in regular contact with local councils, foodbanks and other charitable food distribution bodies and appreciate all that they do throughout the year to help those most vulnerable locally. If you or anyone you know is in immediate hardship please contact my office and we will endeavour to put you in contact with the appropriate local bodies.
As the pandemic evolves, it’s important that the Government reviews and assesses support measures based on the needs at the time. And I will continue to work with my colleagues to identify the best mechanisms to provide much needed support.
Thank you again to those who took the time to raise these issues with me.